Monday, December 28, 2009

Yet Another Libel Against Poe

Frances Sargent Osgood
In 1898, Rufus Griswold's son William published what he claimed was the text of a letter Frances S. Osgood wrote to William's father in 1850. The letter reads:
"I trust you will write that life of Poe. I will do as you wished:- I will write, as far as is proper, in a letter to you, my reminiscences of that year, and try to make it interesting and dignified, and you in introducing it by one single sentence can put down at once my envious calumniators. You have the proof in Mrs. Poe's letter to me, and in his to Mrs. Ellet, either of which would fully establish my innocence in a court of justice-certainly hers would. Neither of them, as you know, were persons likely to take much trouble to prove a woman's innocence, and it was only because she felt that I had been cruelly and shamefully wronged by her mother and Mrs. E[llet] that she impulsively rendered me that justice. She, Mrs. Poe, felt grieved that she herself had drawn me into the snare by imploring me to be kind to Edgar-to grant him my society and to write to him, because, she said, I was the only woman he knew who influenced him for his good, or, indeed, who had any lasting influence over him. I wish the simple truth to be known,-that he sought me, not I him. It is too cruel that I, the only one of those literary women who did not seek his acquaintance-for Mrs. Ellet asked an introduction to him and followed him everywhere, Miss Lynch begged me to bring him there and called upon him at his lodgings. Mrs. Whitman besieged him with valentines and letters long before he wrote or took any notice of her, and all the others wrote poetry and letters to him,- It is too cruel that I should be singled out after his death as the only victim to suffer from the slanders of his mother. I never thought of him till he sent me his Raven and asked Willis to introduce him to me, and immediately after I went to Albany, and afterwards to Boston and Providence to avoid him, and he followed me to each of those places and wrote to me, imploring me to love him, many a letter which I did not reply to until bis wife added her entreaties to his and said that I might save him from infamy, and her from death, by showing an affectionate interest in him."

For many years, this astonishing letter was accepted by Edgar Allan Poe's biographers--even the well-respected "The Poe Log" fell for it--despite the fact that there were, from the start, obvious reasons for doubting its authenticity. For one, there is the highly suspicious fact that we only have what William Griswold published. The actual manuscript of this letter--or even any sort of copy-text--has never surfaced. The text does not read as any sort of genuine letter--rather, it is all heavy-handed exposition, blatantly designed to put a particular story "on the record." And, of course, this letter of apology Virginia Poe supposedly wrote Osgood was never seen, or even mentioned anywhere else, by anyone--including Osgood and Rufus Griswold.

Despite all these indications that the letter was a clumsy hoax, its ridiculous assertions went unchallenged for nearly a century. Then, in 1990, Burton R. Pollin, in the December issue of the journal "Poe Studies" ("'Saroni's Musical Times': Documents Linking Poe, Osgood, and Griswold") revealed that Osgood's "Poe reminiscences," which Griswold incorporated in his "Life of Poe," were not written in 1850 for Griswold's use, as this letter (and Griswold's "Life of Poe") indicated. Rather, Osgood's "reminiscences" first appeared in an obscure periodical called "Saroni's Musical Times" in December 1849. Thus, this "Osgood to Griswold" letter was shown to be, as Pollin rather reluctantly had to concede, "a fabrication." (Considering that Pollin himself had previously used this same bogus letter as source material, one presumes he felt embarrassed for having been hoaxed.)

We do not know who truly wrote this letter--this cheap scam that has caused such damage not only to Poe's reputation, but Virginia's as well. (The image it paints of Poe's cringing ninny of a wife writing Osgood letters seeking forgiveness for having begged her "to be kind to Edgar," has a peculiarly nauseating air.) The most likely culprit, however, is the person who revealed this letter to the world, William Griswold himself. Griswold the Younger was obsessed--I do not think this is too strong a word--with trying to rehabilitate his father's seedy reputation, which he appears to have seen as a black mark against himself. His way of doing this was to promote not only the myth that Griswold the Elder had been entirely truthful about Poe, but that the late poet had been even worse than his literary executor had let on. What better way of doing this than by having Frances Osgood--whom everyone considered Poe's admirer--reveal her true disdain for him? Also, I don't believe Rufus Griswold could have written this letter, because it had always been part of his agenda to depict Osgood as Poe's close friend and defender, not his defamer. All in all, I think it probable that William inherited his dad's predilection for forgery.

Blatant lie though it is, this letter still has its interesting aspects. The document depicts Osgood as anxious to counter a widespread belief that she conducted a disgraceful pursuit of Poe--a claim that, according to the letter, was propagated by Elizabeth Ellet and Maria Clemm.

It would be good to know for certain if Mrs. Clemm had joined Ellet in making this accusation against Osgood. If Osgood had truly been Poe's friend, Mrs. Clemm would hardly have "slandered" her, and if there had been anything improper between Frances and Poe, his mother-in-law would hardly want to spread stories about their relationship that would denigrate his marriage to her daughter. According to Sarah Helen Whitman, Clemm and Osgood disliked each other, although she unfortunately failed to say why. If Mrs. Clemm had accused Osgood of causing trouble for Poe by making a shameless pest of herself over him, that would certainly explain the otherwise inexplicable enmity Osgood and Griswold had towards her.

The animosity shown towards Virginia Poe in this letter--strangely reminiscent of the attitude regarding her found in Elizabeth Ellet's 1846 letter to Osgood--is also significant. Surely, William Griswold--or whoever forged this letter--would not have expressed such a negative attitude towards Poe's wife unless they knew Osgood and/or Rufus Griswold had had some reason to resent her.

The question of who forged this letter is not as important as the question of why it was done. Certainly, the writer of this letter did so in order to counter something they knew had been widely known. One would particularly like to know why Osgood is made to say that this mythical letter from Virginia would "fully establish my innocence in a court of justice." It brings to mind Hiram Fuller's 1847 claim that Poe was contemplating legal action against certain "literary ladies." I am also reminded of an odd statement made by Rufus Griswold's friend Charles Briggs in 1877. Briggs claimed that Griswold suppressed certain "startling" evidence he possessed proving the "utter contempt" Poe really felt towards certain ladies who had been under the delusion that he had admired them. Was Mrs. Osgood among these ladies? Certainly, she was the only woman acquainted with Poe whom Griswold would have motive to protect.

From the tone of this spurious "Osgood to Griswold" letter, it seems logical that the "something" it was intended to refute was the fact that Maria Clemm and other "envious calumniators" had "singled out" Osgood for her intrusive and offensive behavior regarding Poe. If this was the case, it would completely demolish the conventional wisdom regarding the Osgood/Poe relationship.

Friday, December 25, 2009

...And to All a Good Night!

Admit it. You're all hoping Santa has brought you one of these this year.

Complete with removable plastic raven!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coded Poe

Here is an unusual blog essay about Poe that's worth checking out. Freemasons, "Eureka," and even a cameo appearance by Albert Einstein!

(By the way, do we know for certain that that Einstein quote is authentic? I hope so, as that's one of the best lines I've ever read about Poe.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Virginia Clemm Poe Redux

Anyone who has read through this humble little blog (assuming anyone has,) will get the hint that, in general, I do not have an exalted opinion of the women associated with Edgar Allan Poe's life. Fanny, Annie, Sarah Helen, Sarah Elmira, Mary, Marie Louise, Eliza...(I decline to dwell even momentarily on Jane Locke and Stella Lewis...) If Hell ever decides to stage its own version of "The Dating Game," these ladies would make the ideal line-up of contestants.

From the time I first became seriously involved in studying Poe's life, the one exception I have found in this ghastly parade is the only one among the lot he actually married. And, naturally, she has gotten the worst press of them all.

It all traces back--as do many of the nuttier elements of Poe biography--to Susan Archer Talley Weiss, the Berserker of American literary history. For whatever dark, inscrutable reasons of her own, Weiss--who never met Virginia Poe, and never knew anyone who had known Poe's wife at all well--was obsessed with convincing posterity that Virginia, to the end of her days, remained a childlike, sexless, simpleminded creature who bored her brilliant husband out of his wits and in to ardent pursuits of other women, in a desperate attempt to find the fulfillment he was denied in his "fatal marriage."

This dismal picture is directly contradicted by those who were actually acquainted with Virginia. These first-hand witnesses all describe a beautiful, accomplished, charming young woman of great virtue and integrity, who won over everyone in her acquaintance, and who was clearly adored by her husband. Poe's friend Mayne Reid, who disputed the legend of the poet's great attraction for women, stated that Poe's lack of romantic appeal did not matter, as "it was enough for one man to be beloved by one such woman as he had for his wife" Even Thomas Dunn English, who rarely had a good word for anyone other than himself, praised Virginia's "air of refinement and good breeding." George Lippard warmly remembered Virginia as a "pure and beautiful woman" who had brought happiness to Poe's home. Thomas C. Clarke described her as an "exquisite picture of patient loveliness," despite "the hours of sickness, which rendered so much of Virginia's life a source of painful anxiety to all who had the pleasure of knowing her." Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote that when Virginia was too ill to accompany Poe to social gatherings, he clearly missed his wife's presence: "he was fond of naming her," Smith recalled, "and dwelling upon her loveliness of character." A man who was Virginia's neighbor when they were both children described her years later as a "fascinating little brunette" who had been his first love. Poe himself, on hearing of James Russell Lowell's marriage in 1844, wrote him that "I can wish you no better wish than that you may derive from your marriage as substantial happiness as I have derived from mine." Soon after Virginia's first hemorrhage in January 1842, Poe wrote to his close friend Frederick W. Thomas. When telling of the sudden disaster that had struck his home, he said plaintively, "You might imagine the agony I have suffered, for you know how devotedly I love her.

If you read all the accounts given by Poe's acquaintances--particularly the male ones--the impression is given that, if anything, his "child-wife" was considered a damn sight too good for him. Certainly, she gave him the only happy, stable, romantic relationship he ever knew, and was the only one among his real or alleged sweethearts who loved him wholeheartedly and unselfishly.

So...given the choice between accepting the consistent word of Virginia's friends, and a lurid, improbable tale presented by a woman who was (as I pointed out in an earlier post) completely deaf since childhood and unable to lip-read, and thus also unable to have had all those intimate Poe-related conversations she described in print, who never even laid eyes on her subject and who was demonstrably untruthful in nearly everything she ever wrote about Poe--who do most modern-day writers believe?

You guessed it. We're given a Virginia who is, at best (in the cruel words of Burton Pollin,) "a friendly kind of animated doll." At worst, she is depicted as frankly imbecilic. (Here I note the honorable exception of Arthur Quinn, who stood nearly alone in rallying to her defense.) The bulk of Poe's biographers have taken the relative lack of documentation about Virginia (a lack which is not surprising, considering she spent most of her adult life as an invalid,) to mean she had no personality at all. The biographers are hard enough on the poor girl, but the novelists are even worse. The image of a puerile Virginia vacuously coughing in the background, and further burdening her already bedeviled husband with an unsatisfactory marriage, has been a staple of endless piles of bad fiction. (The most recent example, John May's offensive and inept fantasy "Poe & Fanny," takes the prize--against admittedly powerful competition--for Worst Poe Novel.) If these novelists and biographers are to be believed, the one notable thing Virginia did in her entire life was to die miserably.

I simply don't believe it. Anyone who could arouse such fear and loathing in the formidable Elizabeth Ellet (see her July 1846 letter to Frances S. Osgood, where Virginia is as reviled as Poe himself) could not have lacked character. (Oh, what I wouldn't pay for a tape recording of that scene where Virginia confronted Ellet with Osgood's letter...whatever happened on that occasion, it's clear Mrs. Ellet never forgave Mrs. Poe for it.)

Edward Wagenknecht, one of Poe's more rational biographers, noted in Virginia's behalf that she "clearly had her share of charm, and a good many persons were impressed by her." This definitely included Poe himself. His August 1835 letter to her and Mrs. Clemm indisputably proves that Poe desperately loved Virginia and was terrified she might reject him--and unlike the round of engagements-a-go-go he was said to have pursued after her death, he could not have had any ulterior motive in seeking her hand. (This letter, incidentally, also dispenses of the popular slander that Mrs. Clemm was using the possibility of Virginia going to live with the family of her cousin/brother-in-law Neilson Poe as a way of manipulating/pressuring Poe to marry her daughter. The letter shows that when Poe left Baltimore for Richmond--before Neilson's offer was ever made--he already saw himself as Virginia's future husband.)

Many biographers interpret Poe's desire to marry Virginia as a neurotic, even depraved urge. One could look at it another way, and conclude that it would take a rather remarkable thirteen-year-old to inspire such devotion in her older, sophisticated cousin. (It is interesting that in this letter, Virginia's youth is never an issue. It must be remembered that in the 1830s, it was perfectly legal for her to marry. As antipathetic to today's mores as it may be, the marriage of a girl so young was then seen as uncommon, but hardly deviant.)
[A footnote: Much has been made of the fact that, on their Richmond marriage bond, Virginia's age is given as twenty-one. This is often used as a tool to further demean their marriage, by claiming this as proof that all involved were embarrassed by her youth. There is a much simpler explanation for this minor deception. At that time, the state of Virginia required all females under twenty-one to obtain an official affidavit of consent from her father or guardian before she could marry. Virginia's father, William Clemm, was long dead, and, in those pre-feminist times, her mother does not appear to have counted as "guardian." (Before the marriage, Mrs. Clemm had talked of Poe himself becoming the legal guardian of her minor children.) It seems obvious that they misrepresented Virginia's age simply to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with her lack of official guardianship, not out of any fear of public censure. The notion that Poe and his fiancee lived in dread of some Richmond busybody trooping down to the local courthouse and inspecting their marriage bond, just to ascertain the age of the bride, is absurd.]

Despite anything Poe supposedly said or wrote about his marriage during the last two years of his life, when he was sadly ailing in body and spirit, and probably resentful at Virginia's ultimate abandonment of him, I am convinced his was a devotion she kept. The most straightforward and sincere lines he ever wrote comprise his most explicitly autobiographical work, "To My Mother."

edgar allan poe to my mother"Annabel Lee" has often been interpreted as a ballad to his dead wife. I question that--the poem well might be completely fictional, although if it is "about" anyone, Virginia is the only woman for whom it could possibly apply. (She was the only one who was his "bride," she alone could be said to have "no other thought than to love and be loved by me," and of course, she was the only one who died.) Be that as it may, the following poem--one of the last he ever wrote--while addressed to Maria Clemm, is truly a tribute to Virginia, and, to me, is even more touching than the more famous poem:

Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of "Mother,"
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you-
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia's spirit free.
My mother- my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Lines From an Unpublished Drama"

Edgar Allan Poe
In recent years, Edgar Allan Poe biography has been heavily infested with fevered speculation--writers who have "talked and scribbled themselves into convulsions" as the man himself might put it--about the poetic exchanges between Poe and Frances S. Osgood. Many biographers and novelists, lacking almost any sort of actual evidence about what, if anything, actually went on between the pair, have built virtually everything they know--or, rather, think they know--about the relationship between the two by micro-analyzing their poetry. (I have come across reputed "scholars" and "academics" who claim to find insight into the Poe/Osgood relationship by--I'm not kidding here--literally measuring the distances between their writings published in the "Broadway Journal." Yes, this sort of thing is what passes for Poe scholarship nowadays.)

This is all very remarkable, as Poe's contribution to the so-called "literary courtship" (about which none of their contemporaries, including their spouses, seemed to care, or even notice,) consisted of two of his blandest poems which had already been published several times before, and an 1846 Valentine verse where he pays tribute to the lady by misspelling her name and calling her a dunce. (As I have noted earlier, the revised version of this Valentine poem that he later published calls Osgood a liar.)

According to Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe "allowed"--that was the word she used--those old poems of his to be rededicated to Osgood, at Mrs. O's own request. If this is true--and it does sound like the sort of childishly self-aggrandizing thing Osgood would do--it casts an interesting light on their alleged relationship.

Also lost in all the heavy-breathing pother is the fact that there are only three of Osgood's poems that can be at all confidently regarded as being "about" or "to" Poe. (It should be remembered that Osgood herself put an introductory note in one of her books cautioning the reader that many of her poems were written for inclusion in short stories, and thus illustrate the feelings of fictional characters, not of herself.)Frances S. OsgoodHer "Poe poems" consist of an acrostic incorporating his name, unpublished during her lifetime and, from the textual evidence, probably written early in 1846--not 1847, as has been speculated. (It reads as an envious tribute to his relationship with Virginia, and was clearly written in response to his acrostic Valentine.) Another is a rather trite elegy commemorating his death, "The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre." (A side note: In a plagiaristic touch Poe himself would have noted, she "borrowed" the title line from James Bird's "The Vale of Slaughden.") The most interesting of the trio is a poem first published in the "American Metropolitan" for January 1849 under the title, "Lines From an Unpublished Drama," and later expanded into "Fragments of an Unfinished Story." After Poe's death, Sarah Helen Whitman recalled him mentioning the poem as being addressed to himself (the title, reminiscent of his "Politian: Scenes From an Unpublished Drama," likely led him to this conclusion.) This identification is bolstered by a letter of Mrs. Clemm's, mentioning the poem as one addressed to her "Eddie."

"Fragments," judged as poetry, is practically unreadable--thirteen published pages of awkward, semi-coherent blank verse--but as what is probably the most honest account she ever gave about her relations with Poe, it is valuable. She opens with the abrupt lines:
"'A friend!' Are you a friend? No, by my soul!
Since you dare breathe the shadow of a doubt
That I am true as Truth"

And continues:
"What though a thousand seeming proofs condemn me?"
And later:
"Would I were anything that you dost love!
A flower, a shell, a wavelet, or a cloud--
Aught that might win a moment's soul-look from thee"

Osgood goes on to describe him as being not only "blind" to her love for him, but positively antagonistic to her, which she blames on the schemes of another:
"...And after that a cloud,
Colder and darker, hung between her heart
And yours. There were malicious, lovely lips,
That knew, too well, the poison of a hint,
And it work'd deep and sure."

And then:
"...We ne'er have met!...our souls meet not."

..."You have loved often--passionately, perchance--
Never with that wild, rapturous poet-love
Which I might win--and will--not here on earth."

She even concedes that he does not find her attractive:
"...from boyhood, you
Have been a mad idolater of beauty.
And I! ah, Heaven! had you return'd my love,
I had been beautiful in your dear eyes;
For Love and Joy and Hope within the spirit,
Make luminous the face. But let that pass:
I murmur not. In my soul Pride is crown'd
And throned--a queen; and at her feet lies Love,
Her slave--in chains--that you shall ne'er unclasp.
Yet, oh! if aspirations, ever rising
With an intense idolatry of love,
Toward all of grace and purity and truth
That we may dream--can shape the soul to beauty,
(As I believe,) then, in that better world,
You will not ask if I were fair on earth."

(Obviously, Osgood had yet to recover from his comment in "The Literati of New York City" that she was "in no respect" beautiful.)

The poem concludes that in Heaven he will recognize her true worth, and love her, but until then she will proudly keep her love a secret from the world--and him:
"Ay, I would die
A martyr's death, sir, rather than betray
To you by faintest flutter of a pulse--
By lightest change of cheek or eyelid's fall--
That I am she who loves, adores, and flies [sic] you!"

(No, she'll just display to all the world a lengthy poem about the subject instead.)

So, there you have it. Through the medium of an embarrassingly large amount of wretched verse, Osgood announced to one and all that Poe distrusted her, scarcely acknowledged she even existed, and didn't think much of her looks. If we use her poetry as a guide to their relations, as everyone is so eager to do, Poe had no more of a romantic relationship--or even an intimate friendship--with her than he did with Hiram Fuller.

Poe's reaction to "Lines" is unknown. Mrs. Whitman, frantically searching for some excuse for why he should have told acquaintances that their marriage would never take place, theorized that Osgood's poem had moved him to the extent that he was inspired to repudiate his engagement to Whitman. This bizarre notion, however, was only her desperate guesswork, plucked out of the air. She gave no indication Poe said anything to her about the poem or his opinion of Osgood's outreach efforts. (Another instance of the strange lack of communication between him and Whitman.) Certainly, it did not inspire him to contact Osgood. Probably he was flattered. Perhaps touched. Perhaps amused. Possibly, he forgot about the whole thing immediately after reading it. Who can say?

Monday, December 7, 2009


A few random thoughts:

Am I the only one slightly spooked by the fact that Thomas Dunn English named his youngest son--born years after his enemy Poe's death--"Edgar?"
When describing Poe's nightmarish visit to Philadelphia in July of 1849, John Sartain claimed that Poe was on his way to New York. Poe, of course, was traveling from that city, en route to Richmond. This could be just a memory lapse in Sartain's extremely strange--and probably overdramatized--account of his dealings with Poe at this time. However, in 1875, a writer named Francis Fairfield quoted a friend of Poe's named C.C. Burr (who also saw Poe in Philadelphia.) Fairfield said Burr told him that, during what was evidently this same visit, Poe told him of his upcoming marriage to an unnamed wealthy woman. Poe confided that he abhorred the idea of another woman taking Virginia's place, but he was anxious to provide Mrs. Clemm, his "more than mother," with a comfortable home in her old age, and marriage to a lady of means was his only way to do so. Fairfield assumed the woman in question was Sarah Helen Whitman, but this seems impossible. Poe's involvement with Whitman was long over by then. The anecdote could only refer to Sarah Elmira Shelton (particularly since Whitman claimed that after Poe's death, Mrs. Clemm showed her letters from Poe indicating that he was only marrying Shelton for the sake of his former mother-in-law's future security.) The obvious difficulty with this story is the fact that, in July of 1849, he had yet to reach Richmond to launch any sort of courtship of Shelton, much less successfully conclude one.

Is it possible that Sartain and Burr were describing a Philadelphia visit Poe made when returning from Richmond late in September, and that their accounts became confused regarding dates? Such a visit has been hypothesized, but no trustworthy evidence he made it as far as Philadelphia has been found. Sartain and Burr's stories, however, at least hint at the possibility that part of Poe's "lost period"--the five or so untraceable days between his departure from Richmond and his reappearance in a Baltimore tavern--was spent in Philadelphia.


Whatever happened to Virginia Clemm's older brother Henry? The last record we have of him is a letter Poe wrote in January 1836, where his future in-law is described tersely as being "absent (at sea.)" After that, it is as though young Henry had never existed. Many years later, one of their Baltimore relatives told a Poe biographer that Henry Clemm became a sailor and died young and unmarried, but provided no further details.

The most curious part of Henry's brief life is the fact that I have yet to discover any reference to him from his own mother. In the years after Poe's death, Maria Clemm's main topics of conversation were of her loved and lost children--that is to say, Edgar and Virginia. Not one word about her only biological son. Very strange.


Virginia Clemm PoeI find it odd that we have no letters written by Virginia Clemm Poe. The lack of correspondence between her and her husband is understandable. Mrs. Clemm once explained that there never really were any letters between Edgar and Virginia because they were nearly always together--Virginia often accompanied her husband when he left town for any extended period. (A comment on the brief note Poe supposedly wrote Virginia in June 1846: As much as I would like to have some sort of letters between them, we have only a copy of this note that Marie Shew Houghton claimed to have acquired. In the absence of any original manuscript, and keeping in mind Houghton's utter unreliability, I have to be wary about its authenticity.)

However, Virginia must have written letters of some kind to her friends and relatives (we have Poe documents and letters written on stationary embossed with her initials, as well as some decidedly feminine floral paper that must also have been hers,) and it seems unlikely that not one of them has survived.

I wonder if it is possible that somewhere, among some hoard of old family papers, there are letters written by Virginia that have yet to be recognized as such? Few people now would recognize her handwriting on sight, and if the letter was merely signed with her first name, and said nothing explicitly identifying the writer as the wife of Edgar Allan Poe, it could be easily dismissed as being written by an unimportant "unidentified correspondent."

Something for archivists and Poe researchers to keep in mind.


Has anyone else read this letter and found it difficult to imagine (among all its other incomprehensible elements) that Poe--no matter what his mental state may have been--could write "exasperated by ether," instead of what would be the correct, "exacerbated by ether?"

Poe may have had his sins, but they would never have included crimes against the English language.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

OK, Who's the Big Spender?

Edgar Allan Poe TamerlaneThe current big Edgar Allan Poe news is, of course, that auction held at Christie's yesterday. For those of you who failed to cough up the cash, I can inform you that a "Tamerlane" sold for over $660,000 and a manuscript copy of "For Annie" went for--I kid you not--more than $830,000.

Speaking of that manuscript--so help me, when I read about this auction, my first thought was, "It'd be a grand joke on everyone if this turns out to be another Joseph Cosey production, wouldn't it?"

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Strange Case of Rosalie Poe

edgar allan poe sister rosalie poeThere is a tradition that Edgar Allan Poe's sister Rosalie was born on December 20, 1810, but there is no solid documentary evidence for this claim. All we know is that she was born long enough after the mysterious disappearance of her mother Eliza's husband, David Poe, for questions to arise about the child's paternity. It has even been claimed that David's sister, Maria Poe Clemm, maintained that Rosalie was not the true child of either David or Eliza Poe. Intriguingly, when Rosalie was a child, a wealthy resident of Richmond, Virginia, Joseph Gallego, died and left a will bequeathing the then enormous sum of 2,000 dollars for Rosalie's maintenance. She was the only charity bequest in his will to be so favored, leaving one to speculate whether the young orphan was more to him than just an object of sympathy.

After Eliza Poe's death in 1811, Rosalie was given a home by the Mackenzies, a prominent Richmond family, but there are conflicting accounts about whether she was treated as a member of the family or merely as a ward. All reports, however, agree that she grew into a "hopelessly dull" woman with a strange, rather off-putting manner, making her a peculiar contrast to her famous brother.

Rosalie and Edgar had a distant relationship. She herself wrote John Ingram that she was "a good size girl" before she even knew she had siblings--a remarkable statement considering they were raised in the same city. Her letter to Ingram made it clear that she could tell him very little about her brother, which is highly significant in light of the fact that Susan Talley Weiss claimed to have learned practically everything she wrote about Poe from Rosalie and the Mackenzies. Sarah Helen Whitman stated that Edgar told her his relationship with Rosalie was characterized by "a coolness or estrangement of long standing." This is substantiated by a rather startling letter Maria Clemm wrote to her Baltimore relative Neilson Poe soon after Edgar's death. She expressed her desire to have "my darling's trunk" sent to her, and also made clear her indignation at Rosalie's attempts to secure what little estate he left. "What right," Mrs. Clemm cried, "has Rose to anything belonging to him--he has not even written to her for more than two years, and she never has done anything for him except to speak ill of him..."

Rosalie led a comfortable and stable existence in the Mackenzie home until the Civil War left the family destitute. Thereafter, her story becomes pure pitable tragedy. The surviving members of her foster family having scattered, Rosalie, unable to cope with the loss of her happy pre-war life, made her way to her Poe relatives in Baltimore. They evidently soon grew tired of being burdened with her, and she was left on her own resources--a fate her intelligence, character, and upbringing left her completely unable to handle. She made attempts to find work as a housekeeper, and was said to walk the streets trying to sell pictures of Edgar to passerby. (She also made money selling ordinary household items as "Poe artifacts" once owned by her brother--items that, in truth, had no connection to him at all. Poe scholar John Carl Miller cautioned, "Any Poe-association artifact must now be suspect" if Rosalie ever any connection to it.) Her main source of support, however, was "the kindness of strangers," motivated to assist her by admiration for her celebrated sibling.

Rosalie was eventually placed in a charity home in Washington, D.C., where she died in 1874, of what was described as "inflammation of the stomach." Curiously, her tombstone gives her year of birth as 1812--the year after Eliza Poe's death.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poe/Osgood Conundrum

Frances Sargent Osgood Edgar Allan PoeThe evidence we have that, after they permanently parted ways at the beginning of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe entertained friendly personal, as apart from professional, feelings toward Frances S. Osgood comes from the curious letters he allegedly sent Sarah Whitman and "Annie" Richmond. Even more curiously, the favorable references to Osgood in these letters are strangely confused.

We know that after Poe made his abrupt departure from New York and her life, Osgood made indirect attempts to contact him. In April 1846, her good friend Mary Hewitt wrote Poe a very odd letter. In this message, she admitted that she didn't know if it would even reach him, as she, along with everyone else in New York (including Osgood) had no idea where he was. She made a pointed reference to Osgood, saying how they both often spoke of him and his "dear wife," adding somewhat ominously, "you know the power of the femenine [sic] organ of laudation, as well as its opposite." Hewitt said she, Osgood, and the other "Bluestockings" were anxious to have the Poes rejoin their midst. Her letter was an obvious attempt--likely initiated by Osgood--to "smoke Poe out" and learn his whereabouts. There is no evidence Poe answered her.

About this same time, Osgood received a letter from writer John Neal's daughter Mary. The girl asked Osgood for a lock of her hair to add to her collection of such trophies from literary celebrities. Osgood replied not only with the requested item, but, bizarrely, suggested Miss Neal might like some hair from Edgar Allan Poe as well. Neal wrote back a pleased, if surprised assent, enclosing a note to Poe for Osgood to forward to him. Obviously, Osgood was using Neal to provide herself with an excuse to write Poe. The interesting thing is that Poe failed to respond to Neal's request. In a letter written months later to his cousin Mary Gove, John Neal indicated that he had not heard anything from Poe for some years. If Poe actually read Miss Neal's note, surely his normal gallantry towards women--particularly the daughter of an old friend--would have compelled him to reply. In other words, he was not even aware of Neal's query. How is this possible? It strongly suggests that when Osgood forwarded Neal's note, enclosed in one of her own, Poe recognized her distinctive manic scrawl on the envelope...and threw it away unread.

Sarah Helen Whitman related a particularly strange--and desperate--effort of Osgood's to reach out to the ever-elusive poet. Whitman claimed that sometime late in 1848, Osgood, having heard rumors of her engagement to Poe, traveled to Providence to interrogate her. Whitman--who was aware Osgood had no contact "written or otherwise" with Poe since the uproar involving Elizabeth Ellet--described her as anxious for Whitman to pass on to Poe everything she was saying to Whitman about him. Whitman was not specific about the content of these messages, except that they were extremely flattering and conciliatory. Why would Osgood use another woman--particularly his reputed fiancee--as a conduit for her own verbal bouquets? The obvious answer is that she knew he would refuse to hear these sentiments directly from herself. (Whitman stated that she obeyed this request--although she was offended by the effrontery of using her as a messenger service for Osgood's overtures--but she did not indicate what reaction, if any, Poe had. In fact, when describing the incident in later years, Whitman was forced to merely speculate about what Poe's feelings toward Osgood may have been, indicating that she simply did not know how he regarded her. Again, this brings into question the validity of the positive references to Osgood found in the letters Poe supposedly wrote Whitman. It also makes one wonder how well Whitman and Poe truly knew each other.)

And, of course, Osgood published a number of poems that have been theorized as making references to her relationship with Poe, although that has never been proven. The most interesting of the lot appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" in May 1847, under the pseudonym of "Anna F. Allan." Entitled simply "To - - -," the verses begin:
"Since thou art lost to me on earth forever--
Since never more my lips may breathe thy name--
Since 'tis thy will that I not e'er endeavor
To learn where beats and burns that heart of flame..."

(Assuming this poem had anything to do with Poe--which, remember, may well not have been the case--it again showed Osgood's awareness that Poe wanted nothing more to do with her.) In January 1849 the "American Metropolitan" published her poem "Lines From an Unpublished Drama," (which I shall deal with in detail later,) which was said to be addressed to Poe. "Lines" is simply a desperate plea for him to forgive, or at least notice her. She undoubtedly made other attempts to reach out to him of which we know nothing. If so, they also were futile. Even Rufus Griswold told Whitman, soon after Poe's death, that Osgood had not had any communication with the late poet in years.

Poe's cold non-response to these overtures simply does not match the statements about Osgood in the Whitman/Annie letters, which are themselves internally contradictory. One of the letters to Whitman gives a vague and garbled account of the evil machinations of Elizabeth Ellet. Osgood is described as Ellet's innocent dupe, until the last line of the passage, which states flatly, "You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing for which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. O. was her reception of Mrs. E."

This, of course, makes no sense. If his esteemed friend Frances had simply been manipulated and betrayed by Ellet, why would Poe find it "impossible to forgive" her? And what in the world does "her reception of Mrs. E." imply? That Osgood somehow colluded with Poe's enemy? (We know that Osgood attempted to repudiate a letter she had written--a letter that Virginia Poe had used to confront Ellet--by telling Ellet the Poes had forged the missive. Did Poe become aware of this?) The documented actions of both Poe and Osgood prove that she did indeed do something that Poe found unforgivable (and he himself once described his "resentments" as "implacable")--but it is impossible to reconcile this fact with the kindly pro-Frances attitude expressed in the Whitman/Annie letters.

As Whitman herself would say, it is impossible, for many reasons, to find "Poe the man" in the correspondence she and Mrs. Richmond bestowed to history. The Osgood references are a perfect example of this peculiarity.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Bones of Annabel Lee"; a Curious Footnote to "The Mystery of Marie Roget"

"A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it ├Žsthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. "
-Thomas De Quincey, "On Murder, Considered As One of the Fine Arts"
On December 30, 1899, the "New York Evening Post" published a strange, almost impressionistic article entitled "The Bones of Annabel Lee." The author, who gave his name only as "J.P.M.," claimed that in 1846, while working as a messenger boy in New York City, he made several visits to Fordham to deliver manuscript proofs to Edgar Allan Poe.

His most vivid memories of these visits were the brief glimpses he caught of the dying Virginia Poe. "The recollection of her appearance is still vivid as of a picture of a saint seen long ago in a receding light," he wrote. "Her large dark eyes...affected me with something like a searching omnipresence..." "Poor Annabel Lee was doomed. They saw her slipping away softly and wonderingly, as if the mystery and inevitableness of it all had grown to be an abiding and pensive question." "J.P.M." also described an occasion when, while in the Fordham cottage, he and Poe overheard Virginia, who was in the next room, coughing. He remembered how her husband winced at the sound.Virginia Clemm Poe Edgar Poe Annabel LeeThe doomed young woman left such a haunting impression on "J.P.M.," that thereafter he, with "personal zest," sought out from his acquaintances in the literary world anything they knew personally about Poe and his wife. He said that those who had known the poet believed that "the tenderest part of his nature was to be found in the idealization of his child-wife. It is quite possible that that idealization was...not at all practical, or to her best material comfort. But there she was, an absolute antithesis to the actual world, which did not understand him and chafed and aggravated him beyond endurance..." Poe "would obtain special relief in obedience" to his fragile wife.

He closed by repeating William Gill's macabre anecdote (of which Gill seemed unaccountably proud) about retrieving Virginia's "few, thin, discolored bones" from her Fordham grave and keeping them in his bedroom. "J.P.M.," unaware of Gill's claims that he eventually brought his ghoulish bric-a-brac to Baltimore for reburial, added eerily, "I presume that the fragments of poor Annabel Lee are wandering about..."

Mid-way through his narrative, "J.P.M." abruptly switches from his dreamlike musings on Virginia Poe to a story involving her husband and another dead woman--Mary Rogers.

As fans of both Poe and true-crime literature know, Rogers worked as a shopgirl for a New York tobacconist, John Anderson. Her unsolved 1841 murder was later immortalized by Poe in his story "The Mystery of Marie Roget." Poe always intimated he had "inside information" about the murder, even that he knew the identity of the killer--or, the man responsible for what he told George Eveleth was "the accidental death arising from an attempt at abortion"--supposedly a naval officer from a family prominent enough to protect him. This has never been proven, and could well be just another example of Poe's fondness for--as we today would put it--messing with people's minds. On the other hand, the particular interest he took in what would seem to be a relatively unimportant "cold case" could be interpreted as a sign that he was aware of some hidden depths to Rogers' murder which are now lost to us. Poe's contemporaries found his attempts to play detective so notable that forty years after his death, when John Anderson's will was being contested, it was suggested during the court proceedings that the tobacconist had paid Poe to write "Marie Roget" in order to clear Anderson from any suspicion that he had a hand in the crime!Mystery of Marie RogetThat is, of course, a strange charge. But "J.P.M." related a story that, if it is at all to be trusted, is even stranger. He claimed to have heard this account directly from someone called only "the late tobacconist," but who was obviously Anderson. According to "J.P.M.," Poe called on Anderson sometime in 1846. The exact reason for his visit was not stated, but it had something to do with "Roget," which had been republished the previous year. Anderson then invited Poe to dinner at "the old Holt Hotel." The meal did not go well. According to Anderson, Poe and the poet William Ross Wallace, who was also dining with them, got into a violent quarrel over the Rogers case. Anderson claimed the incident left him with the impression of Poe as a young hothead who had allowed the dinner champagne to derange him.

Edgar Allan Poe and William Ross Wallace

"J.P.M." said he afterwards asked Wallace about the incident. Wallace essentially confirmed Anderson's account, but indicated that the tobacconist had misconstrued Poe's behavior. Poe was neither drunk nor violent, according to Wallace, but his nerves were badly strained as a result of his dying wife's desperate condition. When, at dinner, he perceived that Anderson was attempting to gain publicity for his business by capitalizing on his former shopgirl's death, Poe's disgust with him only blackened his mood further.

So, what really happened? Did Poe seek Anderson out after the publication of "Marie Roget?" If so, why? Did this dinner at the Holt Hotel truly take place? If it did, again, what was the purpose? And what cause could Poe and Wallace have to fight over the Rogers murder?

"Bones of Annabel Lee" could well be just another example of the journalistic fiction so common in the public press of the era. If there is any truth to it, however, it hints that the Mary Rogers murder may have been a far bigger story than even Poe dared to fully say.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Dark Side of Marie Shew Houghton

This link includes a biographical article on Marie Louise Shew Houghton, (the woman who is always extravagantly described as the Poe family's nurse/financial supporter/all-around savior,) that is quite an eye-opener. I had always pegged Mrs. Houghton as a kook of the first water. As I knew she was one of the water-cure cranks Edgar Allan Poe ridiculed, and a Fourierist to boot, (a group he also scorned,) I always questioned her true value to the Poes. However, jaded character though I am, I never guessed she was involved in what sound like extremely dodgy financial and property transactions. Or that she was likely a (rather inept) abortionist. Or that in 1849, she gave birth to a son whose father could have been one of three men, all of whom were living under the same roof with her at the time--her current husband, her future husband, and a wealthy older man who appears to have "kept" the whole lot of them. (Calm down--our Edgar wasn't in the running.) Or that, just to round things out, she was arrested for murder in 1876. The victim was a Mary Stanley, the mistress of the boy Houghton had in '49. (That son, Henry, by the way, had previously served time in Denver for being a swindler, an adulterer, and a mule thief.)

I looked up the newspaper articles dealing with the inquest into Stanley's death. All I can say is, that if the accounts of the inquest testimony are accurate, Houghton might--and let me just say might--not have been a murderer. (Stanley's death was finally ruled to have been from natural causes, but it sounds like Houghton had a strong motive to wish her dead, and it's clear that Marie Louise was guilty, at the very least, of some suspiciously incompetent nursing. Also, there was abundant testimony--which does not appear to have been disproved by the defense--showing that before her demise, Stanley told everyone within earshot that Mrs. Houghton was an evil woman who abused her and wanted her dead because Stanley "knew too much" about her family.) The inquest also revealed that Houghton expressed relief when Stanley died, as the pregnant woman was threatening to "swear her child"--that is, slap Houghton's son with the nineteenth-century version of a paternity suit. Whatever else Houghton may have been, she was indisputably the matriarch of one deeply creepy crowd. She comes off as a ministering angel with the bedside manner of Charles Manson.

I have always instinctively found something deeply unsettling about all we've been told about Houghton's dealings with the Poe household, (despite the fact that all his biographers paint her as virtually a saint) and I'm now beginning to see why. I'm quite serious: If it is true--and I pray it is not--that in her final days, Virginia Poe had this woman as her nurse, that is enough to chill my blood.


Monday, November 9, 2009

The Fables of Fanny Osgood

"A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."
-proverbial saying quoted by Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Frances Sargent Osgood and Edgar Allan PoeIn December 1849, the magazine "Saroni's Musical Times" published Frances S. Osgood's version of her acquaintance with the late Edgar Allan Poe. The next year, Rufus Griswold incorporated her story in his "memoir" of Poe, although, with his usual blithe contempt for veracity, he presented her reminiscences as having been written at his request, for his benefit.

Griswold described Osgood's account of Poe as a defense of her dead friend, something to be placed beside his own "harsher judgments." Her recollections have been, without exception, seen as such ever since. As with everything else concerning Poe, I believe the truth is not that simple--or that benign. Read carefully and objectively, Osgood's surface veneer of cloying sentimentality masks a strong undercurrent of malice, even anger.

She began her tale by directly addressing the magazine's proprietor, Herman Saroni: "You ask me, my friend, to write for you my reminiscences of Edgar Poe. For you, who knew and understood my affectionate interest in him, and my frank acknowledgment of that interest to all who had a claim upon my confidence, for you, I will willingly do so."

This is interesting. Mrs. Osgood stated that only those who "had a claim upon my confidence" knew of her "affectionate interest" in Poe. Poe's modern biographers never tire of asserting that all of Poe and Osgood's contemporaries did little but share salacious gossip about their relationship. Yet here, the lady herself revealed the fact that no one outside her inner circle of intimates was aware she even had so much as an "interest" in him!

Rather knocks the whole "scandalous public flirtation" legend straight into the dustbin, does it not?

She continued by saying that her "affectionate interest" was one that was shared by every woman who had known Poe. In the next lines, however, she stated that when Poe had been drinking, "he was in the habit of speaking disrespectfully of the ladies of his acquaintance." Osgood said she found this hard to believe of the man who, she asserted, thought so highly of her that during the year of their acquaintance, he often sought her out for "counsel and kindness." (A footnote: I'd love to see some documentation proving this claim.) Then, she revealed she certainly did believe this charge by stating sharply that if he made such remarks, "the wise and well informed knew how to regard, as they would the impetuous anger of a spoiled infant, balked of its capricious will, the equally harmless and unmeaning phrenzy of that stray child of Poetry and Passion."

After this outburst--where she displayed her aptitude for "counsel and kindness" by dismissing the late poet as a "spoiled infant" whose "phrenzy" was to be ignored, she continued: "For the few unwomanly and slander-loving gossips who have injured him and themselves only by repeating his ravings, when in such moods they have accepted his society, I have only to vouchsafe my wonder and my pity. They cannot surely harm the true and pure, who, reverencing his genius and pitying his misfortunes and his errors, endeavored, by their timely kindness and sympathy, to soothe his sad career."

The condescending and heavily italicized indignation Osgood demonstrated towards Poe's "ravings" and the "unwomanly" (she obviously had some particular woman or women in mind) "gossips" showed a real sense of personal affront. Obviously, the "ladies" Poe had somehow disparaged--"ladies," Osgood seethed defensively, who had only sought to offer him "kindness and sympathy" (so reminiscent of her earlier claim to have given him "kindness and counsel")--included herself.

In the sweet-and-sour manner that characterized her entire account, Osgood then gave a vague and saccharine glimpse of Poe in the sanctuary of his home ("wayward as a petted child,") and related an occasion when, answering an "affectionate summons" from Virginia Poe, she "hastened" to their lodgings. Upon arrival, she found Poe just completing his series on "The Literati of New York."
"'See,' said he, displaying in laughing triumph, several little rolls of narrow paper, (he always wrote thus for the press,) 'I am going to show you, by the difference of length in them, the different degrees of estimation in which I hold all you literary people.'"
Then, according to Osgood, he and Virginia playfully unrolled all his papers, until they laughingly opened one that stretched clear across the room.
"'And whose lengthened sweetness long drawn out is that?' said I. 'Hear her!' he cried, 'just as if her little vain heart didn't tell her it's herself!'"
Mrs. Osgood certainly presented a memorable image of Poe's domestic life--husband and wife both falling all over each other to trumpet their slavish adoration of the incomparable Frances Sargent Osgood. This nauseating little anecdote is a perfect example of her prose fiction at its most mawkish, but it is impossible to reconcile the idea of Poe behaving in this cutesy fashion with anything approaching reality. All one can say about Mrs. Osgood's efforts to place the Poes on her own infantile level is to cite Poe's own manuscript notes for his uncompleted book, "The Living Writers of America." He commented that the defect of the "Literati" series was "that the length of each article was naturally taken as the measure of the author's importance--this arose from [the] fragmentary character of the papers, which were rifacimentos."

After Osgood took care to establish Poe and Virginia's hero worship for her, she described her introduction to the poet at the Astor House, sometime in March 1845. In an unwittingly revealing line, she wrote that he greeted her "calmly, gravely, almost coldly." She claimed that, a few days before, Nathaniel P. Willis gave her a copy of "The Raven," saying the author wanted her opinion of it, and desired to meet her.Edgar Allan Poe Sartain engravingThere are several obvious improbabilities in this anecdote. First, at the time in question, "The Raven" had already been published and was the talk of New York. There is no possible way Osgood was unfamiliar with the poem. Second, although Poe had briefly worked for Willis on the "New York Mirror," he had by then left the paper. Willis himself later recorded that he and Poe never socialized, and that apart from occasional accidental meetings on the street, he only knew Poe from their mutual time in the "Mirror" offices. (And, of course, he never corroborated any of Osgood's story.) In fact, Willis stated in December of 1846 that he had had no contact at all with Poe for two years--i.e., since Poe left the "Mirror." Third, it would have been totally uncharacteristic for Poe to have done something so demeaning as begging introductions to married magazine poetesses whom he had no reason to meet. He certainly had never done so before. It is far more likely that Osgood herself sought an introduction. Finally, we have a letter Osgood herself wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman shortly after she first met Poe. She boasted--rather tactlessly, considering Whitman was a rival poet--that she had been told Poe praised Osgood's work in a recent lecture, and that she had recently met him, and liked him very much. She says nothing of how they met, or anything indicating he had sought an introduction, or desired her opinion of his most popular poem. Surely, if she had had any such details which further illustrated Poe's regard for herself, Osgood would have included them.

Osgood's recollections go on to state that she spent much of 1845 traveling for her health (it is true that, as far as her activities can be traced, she spent little time in New York during that year.) She claimed that, while out of town, she and Poe corresponded, thanks to the "earnest entreaties" of Virginia, who, she said, lauded the "restraining and beneficial effect" Osgood's "influence" had on him. She noted that she herself never saw Poe intoxicated, but intimated that was only because he had promised her to refrain from drinking. According to our Fanny, his wife's desire to keep him sober counted for little by comparison.

Any comment on the astonishing childlike egotism of Osgood's account would be superfluous. But even if this pitiful tale was true--and simple common sense revolts at the idea--what does it say about Osgood's true regard for Poe and his wife? She would have it that Edgar was a drunken weakling whom only she could control, and Virginia was someone who had so feeble a hold on her spouse, and so little pride, that she had to beg another woman to use her "influence" (by mail?!) to keep him on the straight-and-narrow.

In that same sweetly catty vein, Osgood described the "charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself" "in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge."

Even her assertion that "Annabel Lee" was a tribute to Virginia, "the only woman whom he ever truly loved," possibly had a barbed edge. Osgood may have been sincere (she certainly owed Virginia at least that much.) However, her denial of the report that the poem dealt with "a late love affair" of Poe's aroused the ire of Sarah Helen Whitman. Immediately after Poe's death, Whitman had launched a campaign to convince the world that "Annabel Lee" was written for her, and she interpreted Osgood's statement as a deliberate insult to herself. After writing to Osgood's friend Mary Hewitt about the matter (Osgood herself was dead by then,) Whitman told others that Hewitt assured her that Osgood was not disputing her claims to the poem. Hewitt believed Osgood simply lied about Virginia being the poem's inspiration in order to attack another Poe groupie, "Stella" Lewis, who was asserting she was the real Annabel. (Just to add the final unpleasantly self-serving touch to her story, Whitman also claimed that Hewitt wrote that she was sure Osgood did not believe a word of her statement that Virginia had been Poe's one true love.) Whitman did not preserve Hewitt's letters, (deliberately?) so we cannot know if this is what Hewitt actually wrote. As neither Hewitt nor Osgood would have had any personal knowledge about Poe's inspiration for his loveliest poem, it really does not matter. It is interesting, though, that even in what appeared to be a sincere tribute to Poe and Virginia's love, Osgood may have been motivated not by honesty and friendship, but by cheap spite towards other women.

Osgood concluded her little history in the same disagreeable vein in which she began, by approvingly quoting an insulting Poe elegy written by her friend Richard Henry Stoddard:
"He might have soared in the morning light
But he built his nest with the birds of night!
But he lies in dust, and the stone is rolled
Over the sepulchre dim and cold;
He has cancelled all he has done or said,
And gone to the dear and holy dead,
Let us forget the path he trod,
And leave him now, to his Maker, God."
About the only other thing one can say about Osgood's remarkable account is that it is proof that, contrary to what is commonly assumed, there was no suggestive gossip about her relations with Poe during his lifetime. We certainly know about unpleasant talk that circulated concerning Poe and women in 1846, but it all centered on the dispute involving Elizabeth Ellet and her dealings with Poe--not Osgood. Even aside from her unwittingly revealing admission to Saroni mentioned at the beginning of this post, if Osgood's relationship with Poe had brought her into disrepute, she--not to mention Griswold--would hardly have been so eager to inform the world that she was the one Poe went to for "kindness and counsel." Or that only her influence, not Virginia's, had weight with him. Or that they carried on a "divinely beautiful" correspondence (which, of course, no longer exists--if it ever did--aside from a brief note to her from Poe that addresses Osgood as "Dear Madam" and reads like a form letter.) Or that she would need to assure her audience that, although she and Poe never met after the first year of their acquaintance, they remained friends until his death. If there had been any nasty rumors circulating about the pair, both she and her champion Griswold would be anxious to bury all these details, not wave them like a flag. Her account reads not like a woman attempting to downplay their relationship, but one desperate to establish that a relationship existed.

Unfortunately, her way of doing so was to portray Poe as a man who drunkenly slandered innocent women who merely offered him "kindness and sympathy." She described him as someone whom only she could keep on the path of righteousness. She depicted him as having "little poetical episodes" with other women (such as herself?) under the nose of his adoring wife. Not a pretty picture, and I cannot but believe that was precisely her intention. Shakespeare wrote, "the whirligig of time brings on its revenges," and Frances Osgood was having hers on the dead Poe and Virginia for having rejected her. After the Ellet fiasco, the Poes left New York without telling anyone--including Osgood--where they had gone. Despite Osgood's various efforts over the following years to initiate contact with him, Poe never spoke or wrote to her again. For someone as self-absorbed and egotistical as she was, this slight must have been intolerable. (Incidentally one of the many, many curious features about her "reminiscences" is that they appeared anonymously in "Saroni's." The world had no idea she was this chatty "friend" of Poe's until Griswold recycled her story--after her death. One wonders if Mrs. Osgood didn't feel a twinge of bad conscience about publishing such an obviously fictional account.)

And to think, this farrago of lies, self-deification, and petty malisons is presented as a tribute to Poe. It is small wonder that her close friend Griswold was so eager to republish it in his Poe biography.

(Images: NYPL Digital Gallery, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Perils of Poe Biography

Here is an interesting little story from the Lewistown (PA) Sentinel debunking a widely-circulated, and utterly fictitious legend about Edgar Allan Poe's adventures in central Pennsylvania. It's just another example of how everything--and I do mean everything--that has ever been said about Poe needs to be scrutinized with great care. In the years I've spent studying his life, I've come to the depressing conclusion that if you could magically remove all the demonstrably false or highly questionable details from his accepted biography, we wouldn't have enough known facts left about the man to fit on the back of a playing card.

A note: The "biographical book on Edgar Allan Poe in the 1920s" that used this clown Shoemaker as a source was Mary E. Phillips'. (The woman never met a Poe myth she didn't like.) I think Hervey Allen had dealings with him, too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Poe's Weirdest Woman, Sarah Helen Whitman; Or, The Biter Bit

"Even when the facts are available, most people seem to prefer the legend and refuse to believe the truth when it in any way dislodges the myth."
-John Mason Brown

Sarah Helen Whitman lived for thirty years after her disagreeable and still-mysterious parting of the ways with Edgar Allan Poe. Over the long course of these years, his memory took on ever-greater importance in her life. Her growing interest in his life and work both fostered and fed upon Poe's increasingly legendary reputation. She developed a widening correspondence with Poe biographers and associates, and drew to herself many young Poe cultists, deftly utilizing her three-month acquaintance with the poet and her unique status as his reputed sort-of fiancee to transform herself into "Poe's Helen." This aging, plain, rather affected, modestly-talented poetess, spiritualist, Transcendentalist, and habitual drug user--a woman, in short, who appeared to be a completely incompatible match for Poe--became, to many of his acolytes, the ultimate Girl Who Got Away, a goddess of sorts. It is hard to believe Poe sincerely wished to marry a woman fatuous enough to solemnly have herself photographed dressed as Pallas Athena, but thanks to her, most observers did believe just that. She convinced a great many people who really should have known better that she--and only she--was the one great love of Poe's life. (Although Whitman's campaign to convince the world that "Annabel Lee" was a paean to her was a utter failure.)sarah helen whitman edgar allan poeLike all the women who associated their names with Poe's, there was a predominant element of self-glorification in her desire to perpetuate the name and fame of "The Raven." One cannot but think the dead Poe meant much more to her than the live one ever did. A telling example of her narcissistic attitude came when she proudly allowed Richard Henry Stoddard to read the notorious letter she claimed to have received from Poe, which featured the poet mendaciously assuring Whitman, as a sign of his unique love for her, and of his sense of "honor," that by marrying Virginia, he had sacrificed his own happiness. Whitman was surprised and deeply upset when Stoddard expressed his dismay at the letter's depiction of Poe's callous disloyalty to the memory of a loving wife, rather than applauding the tribute to herself.

Of course, Sarah Whitman had a particular incentive to shape public perception about her "romance" with Poe--the widespread belief that he had jilted her, or worse, never really wanted to marry her at all. Rufus Griswold was the first to put into print the claim that when Poe went to Providence for the last time, he was determined to break his relationship with Whitman, even declaring to a New York poetess, Mary Hewitt, that the marriage would never take place. Griswold's lurid details about Poe deliberately staging a drunken tantrum at Whitman's house, all in order to compel her to break their engagement, were, of course, false, but after communicating with Hewitt herself, Whitman was forced to privately concede that Poe had denied they would marry. As late as 1877, she was irritated by a magazine columnist's assertion that Poe "disclaimed any personal interest in the projected marriage, in the presence of literary acquaintances here, even at the moment of receiving congratulations upon the sudden betterment of his prospects, and that his passionate letters to Mrs. Whitman were either wanting in sincerity, or he was weak enough to pretend an indifference that he did not feel." Whitman was understandably troubled and embarrassed to have such details become common knowledge, not because she had cared so deeply for Poe--in private letters, she asserted she never really loved him--but because of the blow to her pride. Any woman would surely find such talk painful--especially if she was aware there was truth to it--and Whitman was particularly vulnerable, being an emotionally fragile, hyper-sensitive and extremely vain personality. For her own psychological well-being, she had to do what she could to counter this perception of their relationship.

Nemesis finally came for Mrs. Whitman in the form of a Lowell, Massachusetts housewife, Annie Richmond. Whitman had never met her, but she knew of Mrs. Richmond as an acquaintance and admirer of Poe's, who was also corresponding with his biographer John H. Ingram. Ingram even told Whitman that "Annie" was providing him with interesting Poe letters.

Whitman had no idea just how interesting these letters were until Ingram published some of them as part of an 1878 "Appleton's Journal" article, "Unpublished Correspondence by Edgar A. Poe." This article revealed to her--and the world--the previously undreamed-of claim that, during Whitman's entire association with Poe--an association that had by then become central to her entire identity--he had been sending a married woman letters that made it painfully clear that she was his favored object of adoration, and the widowed, available "Poe's Helen" was a mere unsatisfactory consolation prize. If Mrs. Whitman had seen nothing wrong with informing the world that Poe had emotionally betrayed his dead wife to her, Mrs. Richmond was equally comfortable with asserting that Poe had betrayed both Virginia and Mrs. Whitman to her.

O. Henry could not have written a more stunning surprise ending to Mrs. Whitman's story. Her shock and humiliation must have been severe--the seventy-five year-old died about two months after the article's publication, and no wonder! What did the poor woman now have to live for?--but she publicly reacted with a commendable dignity.

Soon after Ingram's article appeared in print, she published a wry, telling commentary on the piece in a local paper, the "Providence Journal." She began by observing that "some of Poe's later memorialists may perhaps be blamed for not burning material confided to them for publication by Poe's nearest and dearest friends."

About the "material" itself, Whitman noted "the absence of all testimony as to the verbal authenticity of the letters." Referring in particular to a long, surreal letter Poe supposedly wrote Marie Shew Houghton, she pointed out that the text came from a mere copy provided by Mrs. Houghton, and was thus untrustworthy. Whitman wrote that when Ingram showed her the copy of this letter, she warned him that the "peculiarities of style" and phraseology were so different from Poe's known writings that it was impossible to accept this as a literal transcript, and that he ought not to present it as such. She said he had fully agreed with her opinion, and that he assured her nothing would be published until it had been "revised" and "recast." (The obvious irony here is that many of the letters by and about Poe among Whitman's papers exist only in copies written out by herself.)

Regarding Mrs. Richmond's contributions, Mrs. Whitman said only that she had no idea whether they had been "revised" or "recast," but "one can hardly imagine Poe to have said, 'You are the only being in the whole world whom I have loved at the same time with truth and with purity.'"

Whitman suggested to her readers that as an "offset to the confused and contradictory impression which these letters must inevitably leave," they should study the "Recollections" that Mrs. Richmond's sister Sarah provided for William Gill's "Life of Poe." Whitman praised the "exquisite fidelity" of Sarah Heywood's description of the poet. It is interesting that Whitman made this observation. Miss Heywood depicted Poe--whom, she made it clear, she scarcely knew--as a quiet, reserved, dignified, brilliant gentleman; always charming and courteous, but whose inner self was his own, something kept private from Sarah, from sister Annie, and from everyone else. She found a line from Wordsworth applicable to him: "Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." In other words, he was the antithesis of the undignified, unmanly, ungrammatical jerk depicted in the letters both Mrs. Richmond and Mrs. Whitman claimed to have received from him.

Whitman summarized Ingram's article by stating that if Boileau's axiom, "a man's style is the man himself," is valid, the style of these letters leave us unable to find Poe the man in them. She closed with a quote from Samuel Johnson regarding Boswell: "Sir, if I thought that Bozzy was preparing to write my life, I should be tempted to anticipate him by taking his."

Whitman's short article is apt, witty, and insightful--one of the best brief Poe-related critiques I've seen. She obviously had a personal stake is discrediting letters that delivered such a grievous blow to herself, but that does not discount the validity of her criticism.

However, her article is the final, sardonic twist to her long career as a professional Poe fiancee. She seemed completely unaware--or was she, deep in her heart?--of one fact. All of the cogent arguments she used to cast suspicion on the integrity of these letters and the ladies who presented them--the reliance on mere copies, the startling stylistic variations from Poe's known writings, the inability to find "the man" Poe in any of these missives, the "absence of all testimony as to...authenticity of the letters," the dubious service Poe's "friends" provided him by bequeathing such material to posterity in the first place--all apply with equal force and justice to...herself.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Four) - Eliza White

The Loves of Edgar Allan PoeWith the sole exception of his marriage to Virginia Clemm, all of Edgar Allan Poe's many reputed romantic relationships with women have a strangely unreal, undocumented, unconvincing, and ephemeral quality. One of the most notable examples is his supposed flirtation with Elizabeth "Eliza" or "Lizzie" White. Poe met her in 1835, when he went to work on the "Southern Literary Messenger," the Richmond publication owned by her father, Thomas W. White. We know nothing certain about what--if any--relationship he had then with the fifteen-year-old Eliza. (Poe scholar J.H. Whitty claimed she was 23 when she met Poe, but records prove she was born in 1820.) It has been suggested that a poem Poe published in the September 1835 "Messenger," "Lines Written in an Album," which is addressed to an "Eliza," was written for Miss White, but that is highly unlikely. The poem appeared in print after Poe had been in Richmond only a few weeks, so it's almost certain the innocuous little verse was composed while he was still in Baltimore. (It has also been claimed--and generally accepted--that Poe originally wrote the poem for his cousin Elizabeth Herring, and Whitty had a notion that it was written with Virginia Eliza Clemm in mind, but both these statements are based on dubious or nonexistent evidence. Chances are Poe simply plucked the name, "Eliza" from thin air.)

Nearly everything we are told about their relationship originated with Elizabeth Oakes Smith (it's strange how the same few names keep popping up in Poe legend again and again,) who claimed to be a friend of the White family. After Poe died, she evidently told any number of people--including John Ingram and her friend Sarah Helen Whitman--that if Poe had lived, he would have married Eliza. (Or, as Smith called her, "Lizzie.") She did not explain where this left Whitman and Sarah Elmira Shelton. Smith also told Ingram that Maria Clemm had pressured Poe to marry Virginia in order to "save" him from "Lizzie," who was, according to Mrs. Smith, willful, capricious, and addicted to morphine. (After all, what interest could Poe have had in marrying Virginia Clemm, who was, according to everyone who knew her, lovely, intelligent, sweet-natured, and who adored him? Good Lord, fate worse than being broken on the wheel.) It is notable, however, that despite Smith's fondness for publishing "autobiographic" articles that consisted of whatever stray dirt she could rake up about her contemporaries, she never dared to put any of this in print. It is also notable that she simultaneously expressed her belief that after Virginia's death, Poe had an antipathy towards the idea of remarriage. She seemed not to notice the obvious incongruity.

Smith's stories have more holes than a sieve factory. She was known as an irrepressible and irresponsible gossipmonger (she was also responsible for disseminating a garbled and extremely lurid version of the "Ellet letters" incident, where Poe supposedly died as the result of a beating administered in New York by thugs hired by a woman with whom he had quarreled and whose letters he had refused to return.) Mrs. Whitman--herself no stranger to mythomania--told Ingram frankly that Smith scarcely knew the first thing about Poe, and simply invented virtually everything she ever wrote about him. Smith herself conceded to Ingram that while "Lizzie" was in love with Poe, and hoped to eventually marry him, she had never seen the poet treat Miss White with anything other than his habitual dignified courtesy. Small wonder that Ingram quickly found himself irritably dismissing Smith as a completely worthless source.

The fable that Poe may have wanted to marry Eliza, rather than Virginia, is demolished by the famous letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm in August 1835, where he expressed his deep love for Virginia, and indicated that he already saw himself as virtually engaged to her. (And, of course, if he and Virginia were, as many believe, privately married after they took out a marriage license on September 22, 1835, that settles the issue altogether.)

The indefatigable Susan Talley Weiss later picked up Smith's extravaganzas about Eliza and Poe and put her own deranged spin on them. She reiterated the notion that Poe had intended to marry Miss White, rather than Virginia, but as was usual with her, she never managed to get her stories straight. At one point, she indicated that it was Maria Clemm's insistence that Poe wed her daughter that ended his budding romance with Eliza. Elsewhere, she claimed that Poe had actually been engaged to Miss White, but Poe's "dissipation" forced her to break off the match.

One seeks in vain for evidence proving any of this. Poe's only recorded references to Eliza are two brief, casual asides in letters written to Mrs. Clemm during his 1849 Richmond visit. They do nothing to indicate he was romantically interested in her, or ever had been. We have a number of Thomas White's letters which mention both Eliza and Poe. They contain no hint of any sort of personal relationship between his young daughter and his assistant. In the late 1850s, Sarah Helen Whitman wrote Mrs. Clemm asking if there had ever been a romance between Eliza and Edgar. Poe's aunt responded that Eliza had visited them at Fordham before and after Virginia's death. She said they had all esteemed Miss White as a family friend, but Poe's feelings for her had never gone further than that. (Eliza's visits to them while his wife was still alive, as well as the fact that she attended Poe's Richmond marriage to Virginia substantiates this statement.) J.H. Whitty wrote that Eliza's sister, Sarah Bernard, and John Fergusson, a "Messenger" employee intimate with the White family, both told him that there had never been anything romantic between Poe and Eliza. Whitty can never be trusted as a source, but his testimony is at least consistent with all available reliable evidence.

Most striking of all is the fact that we do not have one word about Poe from Miss White herself. This is particularly curious, as in the 1850s White, in an effort to escape her poorly-paying job as a music teacher (which she bitterly described as "drudgery,") tried launching a career giving public readings from Shakespeare and other poets (not Poe, however.) She publicized herself as the daughter of the founder of the "Southern Literary Messenger." If she had any interesting anecdotes or reminiscences of the "SLM's" most famous employee, Edgar Allan Poe, surely she would have made use of them by incorporating them in her readings, or by giving newspaper interviews, in her effort to attract audiences.

Her hopes of establishing herself as a professional "reader" came to nothing (one contemporary review gently hinted that her ambitions outstripped her abilities,) and she was forced to return to her hated "drudgery." She was teaching music in Richmond until at least 1880. Whitty claimed White died in 1888, but as he misstated her birth year, I'm doubtful he got the time of her death right. I have yet to uncover any valid record of when she died, or where she is buried. (Whitty stated she was buried in Richmond's Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but records of that burial place do not list her name.) Sadly, the death of an impoverished elderly spinster, who was virtually alone in the world, would have received little notice.

Other than Mrs. Smith's questionable--and extremely unflattering--descriptions, we have little or no information about what sort of person Eliza White was. Her one extant letter (written as an application for a clerking job in Richmond during the Civil War,) her attempted career as a "reader," and the dreadful poetry she wrote for the "Messenger" all suggest a theatrical, rather affected personality, but there is too little evidence to know for sure. We do not even know what she looked like. No picture of her exists, and there is no reliable description of her appearance. A cousin of White's once stated that her chief claim to beauty was her light-blonde hair, which implied that she was otherwise not particularly attractive. (This same relative, significantly, could not offer any insight about Eliza's friendship with Poe, explaining that her cousin never mentioned the poet's name.)

Elizabeth W. White--whether or not she was infatuated with Poe, or was a drug addict, or indulged in "capricious" behavior--was definitely one of the most obscure, as well as among the most tenuous, of Poe's many Weird Women.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Pendant to "Poe's Mary"

Edgar Allan PoeSoon after the 1889 publication of that masterpiece of comedy gold, "Poe's Mary," (see earlier post,) "The Critic" magazine published a letter written to Augustus Van Cleef from "Mary's" brother, whose name was given only as "Henry." (A remarkably shy family.) In this letter, "Henry" fondly remembered the young Virginia Clemm, who had evidently been about his age. He described her as a "fascinating little brunette" who "awakened in me the first tender emotion I ever felt--calf love, I believe you call it." He also remembered once escorting his sister to call on Poe and Mrs. Clemm at Fordham sometime after Virginia's death.

However, although he was living in the same house with his sister at the time she supposedly had a very stormy love affair with Poe in the early 1830s--an affair, according to the "Poe's Mary" article, of which all her relatives were cognizant--he claimed never to have "noticed any such flirtations" between her and Poe. He admitted that he "never attached much importance" to whatever relationship she had had with the famous writer. In short, all those colorful and presumably hard-to-forget details in Van Cleef's article, including the scenes depicting Poe cowhiding "Henry's" uncle and drunkenly trying to break into "Mary's" bedroom (all of which surely would have been topics for family conversation at the time) were completely unknown to her brother before reading this story!

Assuming this letter is genuine, it just confirms what I had suspected: The Starr family likely were neighborhood acquaintances of the Poe/Clemm household in Baltimore, and in later years "Mary"--as is often the case with those who knew celebrities before they made their mark--was desirous of keeping in touch with the Poes ("she always looked up all his whereabouts" as Mrs. Houghton said,) and probably longed to be a family friend. There was never anything more than that, as was also shown by the reminiscences of Lambert A. Wilmer. He knew Poe very well during the precise period his friend was supposedly courting "Mary" (when he wasn't beating the tar out of her relatives,) and Wilmer unequivocally depicts Poe as a quiet, serious, hard-working young writer who was not involved in any romances with anyone.

"Poe's Mary" is a classic example of the shameless excesses and outright frauds found in journalism of the period. Van Cleef created something (in the words of Arthur Quinn) "dressed up to sell to a magazine," turning what was undoubtedly the very dull truth into bizarre, unbelievable melodrama.

Well, unbelievable to everyone except the likes of Edgar Allan Poe biographers, that is.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Leonainie" - A Cautionary Tale [Updated]

James Whitcomb Riley
In 1877, a struggling young Kokomo, Indiana poet named James Whitcomb Riley stated to friends that his lack of literary success was due to the fact that he did not have a "name." Critics judged a work not simply by its merits, he believed, but by the reputation of its author. To prove his point, he wrote a poem he called "Leonainie," in what he fancied was the style of Edgar Allan Poe. A friend of Riley's, the editor of a local paper, was enlisted in the hoax, and he cheerfully published the doggerel under the arresting headline:

The accompanying article went on to explain that the editor, while recently visiting said "gentleman of this city," was shown a book with a poem, signed "EAP," written on a blank page. The "gentleman" explained that he had been given the book by his grandfather, who many years previously had kept an inn in Chesterfield, Virginia, near Richmond. One night, a young man clearly the worse for drink arrived asking for a room. The next morning, when the grandfather came to the room to summon the man to breakfast, he found his guest had disappeared, leaving behind only this book.

This story--which is actually one of the more plausible-sounding newspaper stories regarding Poe--caused a nation-wide sensation. Although the poem had its naysayers--the "Boston Transcript" commented that "if Poe really did write it, it is consolation to think he is dead"--most were only too eager to embrace any "new" Poe material, even if it meant accepting that the man who wrote "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" also penned lines like:

"'Leonainie!' angels missed her--
Baby angels--they
Who behind the stars had kissed her
E'er she came away;
And their little, wandering faces
Drooped o'er Heaven's hiding places
Whiter than the lily-vases
On the Sabbath day."
When asked to produce the manuscript of this previously unknown masterpiece, Riley enlisted an artist friend, who, using a facsimile of a few lines of Poe's handwriting as a model, forged a copy of "Leonainie" on the fly-leaf of an old Latin dictionary. For many people, the results were conclusive evidence the poem was genuine. Poe scholar Edmund Clarence Stedman stated that he had studied many Poe manuscripts--some real, some forgeries--and the poem found in this old book was as genuine an example of Poe's writing as he had ever seen. The highly respected literary critics William Cullen Bryant and Alfred Russel Wallace also unhesitatingly endorsed the poem's authenticity. Just when it looked like there would be a new addition to the accepted body of Poe's work, someone ratted. An informant--it is not clear who--told the true history of the manuscript to the editor of a rival Kokomo paper. When the hoax was finally made public, Riley--who, to do him justice, had become increasingly uncomfortable with the unexpected success of his little prank--confessed all. Even then, there were some who refused to believe him. For years afterward, Alfred Wallace continued to insist that the manuscript just had to be Poe's work.

The lesson to be learned from the "Leonainie" debacle is, I fear, lost on many Poe researchers. In their understandable eagerness to expand the relatively scanty body of information we have about the author, far too many are far too ready to latch onto any "new" Poe letters or manuscripts, no matter how questionable they may be. And I may say that, in this regard, I an looking with a particularly jaundiced eye upon this poem. It is a genuine mystery to me why "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" has been universally accepted as an authentic Poe MS. The previously unknown poem did not surface until 1932, with no information given about where it had been hiding for the previous nine decades. Louise Hunter was a real person--an obscure young poetess whose mediocre verse appeared occasionally in the magazines of the era--but aside from the fact that Poe was one of the judges for an 1845 student literary competition Miss Hunter won, there is nothing linking their names. When this poem's existence was first made known, a relative of Hunter's publicly expressed her astonishment. She said that Miss Hunter was fond of talking of the literary celebrities she had known (including Frances S. Osgood,) and she never once claimed to have even been introduced to Poe, much less that he had composed a poem in her honor.

Questions have been raised about the date this poem was allegedly composed. The MS.--which is unsigned--has the date "February 14" written in the same handwriting as the poem. Another hand had, in pencil, written the year "1847." This dating was accepted by Mabbott, but others argue for an 1846 date, pointing out that Valentine's Day, 1847, was only two weeks after the death of Virginia Poe. They find it unlikely that Poe--buried in his remote cottage at Fordham, ill, and grieving--would be wasting his energies writing puerile poems to young ladies he must have scarcely, if at all, known. This uncertainty in dating only adds to the poem's untrustworthiness. In short, there is no reason in the world--not even a signature--to identify this manuscript poem with Poe. I have no idea how anyone ever did so in the first place.
The complete poems of Edgar Allan PoeThe poem itself argues conclusively against any attempts to claim it as Poe's handiwork. It is certainly true that some of his poems were far weaker than others. However, I dare anyone to read "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" objectively and then accept that, even on the worst day of his life, Poe could be capable of composing such ridiculous drivel. And preserving it for posterity, yet. He'd cut off his own right hand first. The author of this poem--whoever he or she might have been--made "Leonainie" look positively sublime.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that Poe scholars are, in general, a singularly credulous lot, but in their immediate, unskeptical readiness to include this absurd little poem in the Poe canon, they truly outdid themselves.

Update 2/2012: Jeffrey A. Savoye of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore recently alerted me to the fact that a few months ago a researcher named Ton Fafianie has identified "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" as the work of William Gilmore Simms, although scholars still presume that it was Poe--in a moment, I assume, of greatly lapsed taste--who copied the poem as a Valentine for Miss Hunter. Mr. Fafianie has prepared an article for publication on the topic. When it comes out, I shall do my best to hunt down a copy and post further information about these contentious little verses.

Update 5/2012: I was recently able to read Mr. Fafianie's painstaking and highly interesting research on the poem. ("Poe's Purloined Poem," "The Simms Review," Summer/Winter 2011.) He proves conclusively that the "Hunter" poem was cribbed from Simms' work, which was first published in the "American Monthly Magazine" of July 1, 1834, (where it was called simply, "Song,") and later in the January 1840 "Southern Literary Messenger" under the title, "There are Dreams of Bowers." However, as the "Hunter" manuscript's provenance is unknown (we do not even know how A. S. W. Rosenbach, the 1932 "discoverer" of the poem, acquired the item,) and it is still a complete mystery how or why Poe would have made this copy at all, (Mr. Fafianie's suggestion that Caroline Kirkland instigated Poe to create this second-hand Valentine is too tenuous to be convincing,) I am still uncertain we are dealing with any sort of genuine Poe document.

Yes, I know. Like the world cares what I think.

P.S. Mr. Fafianie noted that the final version of Simms' poem (the version borrowed for "Hunter") was published in May of 1846, which suggests an 1847 date for this MS. However, this just complicates matters further. If Poe truly did write out this poem, (presumably for one of Anne Lynch's Valentine parties, where everyone in her circle was called upon to write odes to each other) it seems only logical that he would have done so in the earlier year. Even leaving aside the improbability that two weeks after Virginia's death, he would be dealing with such trivialities, by 1847, Poe was persona non grata among the Lynch mob, and was no longer participating in such gatherings. If Mr. Savoye's theory--that Miss Hunter's mentor Frances Osgood had commissioned Poe to write a Valentine for her young friend--is correct, that would also indicate an 1846 dating. By February 1847, Mrs. Osgood had left New York for Philadelphia, and her own reminiscences indicate that she had no contact with Poe after early 1846. As I said earlier, the difficulty with assigning a plausible date to this poem just adds to the mystery.